Tornado victim Jack Furrie warned his family about the storm before he died

That Jack Furrie would think about warning his relatives about the devastating storm before taking cover himself came as no surprise to his family.

Senior who called relatives daily used his 2 last phone calls to warn relatives

Jack Furrie, 77, was killed in the tornado that struck Alonsa on Aug. 3. He regularly called family to ensure both they and he were OK, a practice he continued the night he died. (Submitted by Kelly Brown)

Every morning after his wife died, Jack Furrie picked up the phone to tell two of his closest relatives he was doing just fine.

It wasn't odd then that Furrie, 77, would call during a stormy Friday night in Alonsa, Man., said his brother-in-law, Earl Eyolfson.

But there was a hint of concern in Furrie's voice as he warned of a menacing tornado on its way.

It would be the last phone call Eyolfson would receive from Furrie.

"I should have said, 'Come over to the house here,' " Eyolfson said.

Furrie, a retired schoolteacher and farmer, died when a tornado at recorded speeds of up to 310 km/h struck his home about 165 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg on the night of Aug. 3.

Just before he was killed, Furrie's family members say, he thought to call at least two family members from his landline and warn them of the storm's wrath

Earl Eyolfson pokes through the wreckage left behind by the tornado at his home earlier this week. He and his wife narrowly escaped the tornado's fury thanks to a phone call from Furrie. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

Eyolfson said a daily call from Furrie was their "policy" since his wife died eight years ago. 

"He never missed a day," Eyolfson said. 

"It's kind of terrible to think that you were the last one, or one of the last ones, to speak to him," he said. "It runs through your mind like every hour, every two minutes — why couldn't I talk to him today? It's not a good feeling."

He said Furrie expressed no concern for his own safety in their final phone call. If he was worried, it was for them.

Looking back, Eyolfson has regrets.

If you were in trouble and needed help, Jack was there.- Earl Eyolfson

He should have asked Furrie whether he was safe, he said, and he should have heeded his warning — and the same one from his granddaughter — immediately. Instead, they hurried to the basement only after noticing the rain and hail.

Slowed by age, the couple in their 70s didn't make it downstairs before the twister tore the roof off their home.

They escaped the disaster and are now in Portage la Prairie, Man., with family.

Watch as Earl Eyolfson and wife Janet recount their narrow escape:

A table and helpful neighbours saved Earl Eyolfson's wife, Janet 1:36

"If hindsight was foresight, we would have gone long before we'd seen it raining," he said. 

Ellen Oleschak, 85, was not remotely surprised that Furrie called her. 

Cousins Ellen Oleschak, left, and Jack Furrie kept in close contact after losing their spouses in 2010. Furrie called Oleschak's home the night he died to warn her of the tornado. (Submitted by Sally Oleschak)

"If I went outside to do chores or feed the birds or something, he'd have to know when I got back in the house," she said.

They had both lost their partners in 2010. They looked out for one another, she says.

Furrie's call arrived around 8:40 p.m. after the electricity went out. The home's landline was picked up by her daughter, Sally Oleschak.

Over the phone, it seemed Furrie was more concerned for her mother than himself, she said.

"It makes me very emotional, knowing that I very likely could have been the last person he spoke to," Oleschak said on the phone from Thompson, where she lives. "It makes me question if there was something I could have said to him that may have got him into a protected area."

The tornado's path was at least two kilometres from where they were staying, she said.

It is not known how Furrie knew a tornado was coming. His grandson, Kelly Brown, says Furrie would not have received the emergency cellphone notification because he lost service after Bell MTS upgraded its cell towers in June.

It makes me very emotional, knowing that I very likely could have been the last person he spoke to.-  Sally Oleschak

Environment Canada began receiving reports of the tornado shortly before 9 p.m. The twister's path was as wide as 800 metres and lasted for at least 20 minutes, the weather agency reported.

Eyolfson said it speaks to Furrie's character that one of his final acts was to warn the people he cared about. 

"If you were in trouble and needed help, Jack was there."

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter at CBC Manitoba. He previously wrote about rural Manitoba for the Brandon Sun and the Carillon in Steinbach. Story idea? Email ian.froese@cbc.ca.